One of the benefits of senior living can be its ability to address loneliness and isolation in older adults, but that doesn’t mean that some residents don’t still feel lonely.

In fact, 85% of independent living residents interviewed for a recent small study reported moderate to severe levels of loneliness. The residents also shared some techniques to manage it that may help other older adults and those who serve and care for them, however.

“Loneliness rivals smoking and obesity in its impact on shortening longevity,” said Dilip V. Jeste, M.D., explaining the importance of the topic. Jeste, the senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at University of California, San Diego, School of Medicine, was the lead author of a study published online in the Jan. 10 edition of Aging and Mental Health.

He and colleagues conducted 1.5-hour individual interviews with 30 independent living residents aged 67 to 92 years to see why loneliness exists in senior living — despite the presence of shared common areas, planned social outings and communal activities intended to promote socialization and reduce isolation.

“Different people feel lonely for different reasons, despite having opportunities and resources for socialization,” he said. “This is not a one-size-fits-all topic.”

Nonetheless, the researchers noticed themes emerging from their interviews. One was that the primary risk factors for loneliness seem to be age-associated losses of spouses, siblings and friends, as well as inadequate social skills. Another theme was that a feeling of lack of purpose or control often was linked to a feeling of loneliness.

But some residents who participated in the study also offered some suggestions on how to deal with loneliness.

“One participant spoke of a technique she had used for years, saying, ‘If you’re feeling lonely, then go out and do something for somebody else.’ That’s proactive,” Jeste said. 

Acceptance of aging and comfort with being alone also helped some older adults.

“One resident told us, ‘I’ve accepted the aging process. I’m not afraid of it. I used to climb mountains. I want to keep moving, even if I have to crawl. I have to be realistic about getting older, but I consider and accept life as a transition,’ ” Jeste said. “Another resident responded, ‘I may feel alone, but that doesn’t mean I’m lonely. I’m proud I can live by myself.’ ”

The researchers hope to build on their findings to develop other ways to prevent older adults from feeling lonely. For now, although we may not be able to prevent the deaths of residents’ friends and family members, we can try to recommend charitable work that residents can do and try to help them find a sense of purpose and control.